An Interview with the Angelic Doctor

Note: The following interview came to me from an anonymous source. Because of the importance of the subject of the interview, and because certain portions of it are distinctly timely, it seemed to me to be worth transcribing and bringing to the attention of a wider readership. Although I would certainly like to know the circumstances which brought about this interview, that was not a part of what was communicated to me. I fear that curiosity about this, as well as about the identity and veracity of the anonymous “journalist” will remain unsatisfied. I can only testify that the transcription is as accurate as I could make it.

Helen Hull                                            

Journalist: Father Aquinas (or may I call you St. Thomas?)

Aquinas: I prefer either title to “Angelic Doctor,” which I’ve always found embarrassing.

J:… for the benefit of our readers, may I request that you express yourself, not in your usual precise philosophical language, but “in the vernacular,” so to speak?

A: My dear child, there is entirely too much shabbiness and dishonesty masquerading as “vernacular” in your time. However, I understand your point about accessibility to the masses of your readers who require, nay, demand, that all things be immediately comprehensible to them. In my time the people who could read were also trained to think, which is not the case in your day, unfortunately. Training the intellect to perform the function of reading without the ability to understand what is read is nearly as great a sin against the human intellect as the determination to write non-nutritive pap (you call it junk-food, I believe) and call it “theology.” Yet, I digress. And I will endeavor, insofar as it is consistent with at least the rudiments of accuracy, to do as you wish.

J: Um . thank-you sir. Now, you may realize that your writings, which enjoyed a revival of several decades earlier in this century, have been discredited by a large number of the popular Catholic theologians of the past few years. These scholars apparently feel that the scholastic system is too neat, too rigid, and entirely out of synch with modern times. Would you care to comment?

A: I concede that the scholastic system — or any “system” — of thought is in danger of rigidity if it is understood primarily as a system — a sort of machine for churning out “correct” answers — with the content lost. People of your time, however, habitually describe as “rigid” anything which is unchanging — including truth. I must caution you against this. I do confess to my sometime dismay that the spirit of inquiry and intellectual energy which I had hoped to communicate was so often missing from many university lectures on my work during the middle decades of your century. In fact, some of my little paragraphs, which excited me greatly as I wrote them, sounded decidedly moribund. I don’t fault the teachers for this entirely. They were themselves, no doubt, products as well as producers of mass education, which has its intrinsic little difficulties.

J: You seem to imply that mass education accounts for many of our current problems. Do you suggest that education should be reserved to the elite?

A: Hmm. Is that how it sounded? No, I think that the attempt to achieve universal literacy was nobly inspired (however it has turned out) and one of the most generous ideas man has conceived. However, conceiving and achieving are very different things, and it is a mistake to believe that wisdom and understanding are necessary products of education.

J: Yet don’t you think that they are related? Don’t you think that the “spirit of inquiry” and “intellectual energy” you mentioned lead inevitably to the desire to be educated? Doesn’t the one follow from the other?

A: It can. But what I see in many of your twentieth-century educated types is an immense intellectual laziness combined with a desire for instantly comprehensible solutions to perennial problems, both spiritual and temporal, along with an unhealthy egotism which leads to all kinds of intellectual shoddiness and moral confusion, and to the rejection of any idea which does not submit to instant apprehension. This hardly leads to wisdom. One circumstance which further complicates the matter for your century is the incredible proliferation of print-cum-audio/video information (you conveniently call it “the media”).

J: Surely you would agree, though, that this information technology is an improvement over what was available in your day? You are not advocating a return to the hand-copied texts and dismal ignorance of the Middle Ages, are you?

A: I certainly hold no brief for the Middle Ages. However, I am not sure how you can assert that your time is less afflicted with “ignorance” than ours. One difference may be that people of your age are less willing to admit, or even recognize, their own ignorance. We of the Middle Ages were probably less tempted by intellectual arrogance than you are.

As to the technology of which twentieth-century people are so proud. it appears to me that the ability to develop it far outstrips the ability to control it. Despite your admirable technology, you still have war, poverty, pestilence, famine . . . Need I go on?

J: But surely you, of all people, who devoted much time to the rediscovery of science, must have at least a sneaking admiration for the scientific advancement of the past century or so.

A: It is a matter for speculation how I would have reacted to the “scientific advancement” had I been born several hundred years later. You seem to forget that I no longer “see through a glass darkly” in my present situation. But that’s “pulling rank” on you. Forgive me. It is quite true, at any rate, that had I lived on earth now I’d never have made such an absurd error as that which has come back to haunt me nearly seven hundred years after it was written.

J: What “absurd error” do you mean? A theological error? A: I made some of these, unsurprisingly. No, I think you’d have to call this a physiological error.

J: Physiological?

A: You see, we schoolmen were considering the question of ensoulment — that is, at what point the soul was infused into the body. This seemed important in the larger context of our effort to affirm the actual, natural harmony between the material/body and the spiritual (or substantial)/soul, against the dualist heresies of our time (they are still with you, by the way — “in spades,” as the saying goes) which exaggerated the Platonic concept of the dual nature of man and led to their condemnation of all material creation (e.g. the body) as intrinsically evil, debased and insalvable, regarding only the ideal, the spiritual (e.g. the soul) as good…

J: You’re beginning to lose me. Where does the physiology come in?

A: Bear with me, if you can. This dualist error, which regards the material world — the created order — as evil is, of course, incompatible with the truth of God’s creation of the material world. God cannot create evil. Nature is not, of itself, evil. Are you with me?

J: Um… yes, I think.

A: We were attempting fix affirm the unity and inseparability of the body and the soul, against the emanationism of the dualist gnostic-manichaean heresies…

J: Emanationism? Gnostic-manichaean?

A: Pardon me. Your modern pantheism is the same. The idea was that individual souls are some sort of emanation or outflowing of Divine Substance, thus in essence unconnected with the individual body. This disassociation of spirit and matter (soul and body) inevitably and simultaneously leads to the devaluation of individual human life (for instance, in abortion, and certain political systems), and to unbridled sensuality and personal disintegration, because the individual body is regarded as only a vessel of some sort of immutable Divine Emanation.

J: I think I understand. Didn’t you develop these ideas in you book Summa Contra Genitals?

A: Gentiles, not “genitals.” Where were we?

J: Could we go back to your “error”?

A: I was getting to that. We correctly taught that each individual soul is created by God out of nothing at the moment of its unification with the body. Our error came from ignorance of basic embryology that you would, surely, take for granted. We did not understand the continum of human life as it is formed from conception, and believed (our ignorance pains me), following Aristotle’s model, that in the human embryo three distinct forms of life, the vegetative, the sensitive and the spiritual, followed one another. We held that the soul was infused into the body in its last form, which, I thought it logical to assume, was achieved when fetal movement was felt by the mother — at about the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. How wrong I was I didn’t learn until I reached my present state. How disastrous this error was, however, has only recently become apparent.

J: Now, wait a minute. This is the one thing that you taught which is still popular! Why, only recently, on national television, a feminist nun cited you as an authority to support her view that abortion may be a moral choice. And the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1973 decision, said that the first trimester…

A: I know, I know — alas! You needn’t remind me. Doesn’t it strike you as ironic, however, that in matters of perennial truth, where we did have some insight (by the Grace of God), our teaching is disregarded as “medieval,” but in this instance, when we based our theory on a patently erroneous scientific “fact” (which theory, incidentally, was never accepted by the Church as authentic), we are — I am — cited as supporting a view which is inimical to everything I know to be true? What happened to the charge of “medievalism” and “out of synch with modern times” in this case?

J: Hmm… I see what you mean. Did you grant this interview to set the record straight?

A: I had hoped it might help. But now I must go. The hour of Vespers approaches.

J: Do you still observe the monastic rule even… ah… in your present state?

A: Oh, indeed. There are many to pray for.

J: If you don’t think it impertinent of me to ask, whom do you pray for?

A: Well, since there are so many of us, we tend to specialize. I pray for theologians, mostly. And religious orders.

J: Any particular reason?

A: They need it.


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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